CFL.ca: Reviewing the New Look

At the end of March CFL.ca, the official site of the Canadian Football League, was offline with only a banner informing users of the upcoming change displayed for about 24 hours while they switched the site over from the old CANOE family site to the new standalone site powered by SUN Microsystems. Since the announcement in June 2003 that SUN was investing in hardware and software to modernize the CFL’s technology and web infrastructure I have been anticipating the new web site design. I wasn’t expecting a lot in terms of standards compliance or design difference from the average corporate site but I was looking forward to an improvement in content. In turns out I was disappointed on all fronts.

Design and Content

When a site is undergoing a redesign in 2005 from a 1997 web look it is easy to get ones hope up. With the delivered design it is easy to be disappointed. A Flash and (inline) JavaScript driven site is so 2001.

So what do we have? The CFL home page is crowded and yet lacks any substantial content. We have a 2-line summary for one feature story (and picture) and three most recent stories (which includes the main feature already shown) in thumbnail and story title form. This is delivered in Flash, and in Firefox requires me to click on it to get the cursor to change to a hand cursor so I know these are links. I then discover that clicking one of the thumbnail pictures moves it to the prominent position, which gives me a little more information about the topic, but I still need to click on the Read More link to read the whole story on a subsequent page. The rest of the page is filled with a scoreboard and schedule section done in Flash, Player and Cheerleader profiles done in Flash, video highlights done in Flash, fantasy football stats and Player of the Week totals from last season done in Flash, the obligatory poll and ads.

The site maintains an 800 pixel static width, though it is no longer centered on the page. The new design is quite bland. I am no designer and I believe I could produce the same or better. Very little colour or white-space exist in the design. Overall it has the feel of a giant billboard or a street full of flashing neon signs.

The new header and menu system delivered in Flash and performs about the same as the previous version done in JavaScript. Except for the “wow” factor which everyone has gotten over (it’s not 2000 anymore) the Flash driven menus provide little if anything in functionality or accessibility.

Overall the performance of the site is poor. On my high speed connection the page takes in the 5-second range to load all the Flash sections. Other sections of the site are painfully slow compared to the previous version. Trying to find a news article to reference for this post was excruciating, as browsing through the history required me to guess at the page the news item would be on. Once I narrowed down the range by Googling the topic and finding the date via another site I still had to browse through 10-12 pages to find the item. Each page load took 5-10 seconds, adding to the agony. Hello CFL! A search feature and sections by date would be nice here.

On a side note it appears that Google has removed all previous CFL.ca page indexes and has not crawled the site yet (or perhaps can’t crawl it anymore due to the amount of Flash). The CFL needs to do something to correct this as I was unable to find the announcement I wanted to link via a Google search either.

As for content, the new cfl.ca provides little more in additional content that I can see. Just prior to the switch the CFL stopped providing web links to various newspaper sites’ articles regarding the CFL, instead they provided info on the article (title, columnist, paper, and page) with no link. While the reasoning was listed as because most newspaper sites were requiring accounts to view articles they would no longer provide direct links, I was suspicious that it was due to requests from the papers to quit hot linking their articles. Now this feature is gone, replaced with a Flash (who would have guessed) ticker in the middle of the home page which revolves through the title and associated paper of recent articles about the CFL. This feature is absolutely useless as there is no link, scrolls by too fast and not enough information to make it worth while for me to find the article on the paper’s site on my own.

The biggest disappointment when I first browsed the site was that the statistic page hadn’t changed. No, it got the new design, but was still published with links to Adobe Acrobat files. This was the final straw! Any sports league serving it stats in a static, non-parseable form like Acrobat files was beyond hope. I immediately fired an email off to their feedback address, expressing my dumbfoundness that they had not corrected this travesty to CFL fans who crave proper stats. I did not receive a reply, but a check of the page again shows the following promising (if not almost unnoticeable) update:

Coming for the 2005 CFL season – dynamic player profiles and statistics!

I will reserve final judgement on this overhaul until I can review these dynamic statistics. If they aren’t searchable and allow display by multiple parameters then they will have missed a great opportunity to move the CFL forward into our current millennium.

Site Technology

Did I mention the site uses Flash? And inline JavaScript? I think enough has been said about the client-side technology. Examining the site it appears the server-side is served by Apache running PHP 5.0.3. For the portal software it appears the site developer, MRX Associates, has deployed PostNuke and PNphpBB for the forum section. While the use of these open source technologies is commendable, it is a shame that it resulted it such a poorly designed and deployed site. Are you really using the portal software to its capabilities when it the content is 90% done in Flash? In my opinion the developers sold the CFL on a site with all the bells and whistles, but with no content, standards, or design in mind. Seeing a keywords Meta tag in the page source still listing the default PostNuke keywords for itself proves to me the developers were not concerned with the details prior to launch. Whether this was due to approaching deadlines, lack of resources or lack of concern I do not know. I do know that an organization the size of the CFL deserves a better site than this. Whether they paid for this kind of quality I don’t know either. In reviewing the technology there is some promise showing, some hope for the future, but also some disappointment considering my expectations were with old SUN hosted NHL site. Not that SUN technology produced lightweight standards compliant code, but I would have preferred their use of tables for layout but functioning site with the CFL’s current mess of HTML, Flash and missing functionality.

Why the slamming of the rich Flash experience? Because all Flash sites is not where the web is heading. Flash is great for certain tasks, but eliminates too much of your audience to adopt for your entire site. When the site first debuted, I didn’t see anything but a muddled mess. At first I thought it was because they were employing JavaScript which was not cross-browser compliant (I use Firefox). After I eliminated that theory, I discovered it was because of the Flash and my personal firewall, as turning the firewall off resulted in the site rendering normally. In the end I had to adjust my firewall settings and add cfl.ca as a trusted site for it to work while the firewall is on. This is one example of how using these technologies can mean the CFL starts dictating to their visitors what security settings they should have. People who don’t figure out that the firewall is the issue, or determine it isn’t worth their while, don’t come back. Or worse, they shut off their firewall and leave it off so they can view the cfl.ca site, making the Internet just a little more dangerous for them and the rest of us. The same goes for technologies such as Flash. Some users do not have these plug-ins installed by choice (dial-up users) or these technologies turned off. The basis of the Internet is that the technologies are supposed to be available to everyone. By not providing an HTML option to users the CFL is shutting out some users.

Other technologies which would be of a benefit to the CFL are not deployed. For example, an RSS feed so fans may access news items, Coaches (sic) Corner, Ask the Referee, and The Play Maker columns via a newsreader. Offering summaries of this content would allow fans to know when the site was updated, and click through to view the full content. Some of the content appears to be rotated (Ask the Referee) but new articles in that category could be placed in a feed while the content still rotated on the main page. This type of system actually drives traffic by encouraging people to link articles in their own blogs (like this one) and find about content they are interested in since few people visit a page daily to check for updates anymore. A list of proper requirements for a CFL web site could be matched with a number of technologies that would help accomplish them instead of the opposite where the technologies are picked and the requirements made to match their capabilities.

Standards Compliance

I didn’t expect much in standards compliance from the new site due to the fact that most of the web site designers/developers getting large corporate clients use tried and true methods which are dated in the web’s past. Some progress was made however.

The site seems to work as well in Firefox as it does in Internet Explorer, which was not the case for the old version. Considering the amount of Flash, this is not surprising. A valid Doctype is used resulting in the page rendering in Standards mode. Validation of the home page using Tidy turns up 34 warnings, most dealing with Flash <embed> tags, un-encoded ampersands and missing type attributes in <script> tags. Other pages produce a great more (e.g. 167) warnings, usually directly related to the number of links and un-encoded ampersands on the page. If this isn’t a case for search-engine friendly URL‘s, I don’t know what is.

Conclusion

Overall I give the site as it sits now a D-, perilously close to an F. It could improve to a D+ depending on how the statistic section of the site is delivered this season. No matter what they provide there I cannot see cfl.ca attaining an average rating on my scale.

When the new site debuted I seriously thought of switching to another site for my home page. I have decided to stick with it through the 2005 season however. I will evaluate in November whether it is providing the information I am looking for from a league site. If it still seems to me then that the CFL deserves a better web site (as I’ve been saying for years), then I will revert my homepage to another site, perhaps one of my own.

4 Responses to “CFL.ca: Reviewing the New Look”

  1. Jim Says:

    Somebody should be fired for this!!!

  2. Jon Says:

    Jim: I take your point to be I take it too seriously. I agree my writing comes off that way. The site still is a piece of crap though.

  3. Jim Says:

    No, I seriously think somebody should be fired for this. Schmucks all over have good jobs and get paid well, but don’t produce. That’s the problem in Canada. Can’t just dump the losers who have become too comfortable in their position and don’t perform. Everybody’s got an excuse.
    Also, I was unable to even get a glance at the site, because the page doesn’t come up. It seriously does make the CFL look like a joke!!!

  4. Gord Says:

    I would have to agree with both of you. The fact they can do flash but can’t give you interactive stats is a joke.

    Obviously they wouldn’t know a football if it hit them in the head and broke their thick black-framed glasses.

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